J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

What Does Financial Freedom Mean to You?

Not the skylight in my house.

Not the skylight in my house.

As the water poured into my house from two leaky skylights, I had a thought …

What does financial freedom mean for me, personally?

It’s a phrase Tony Robbins uses in Money, Master the Game. I considered the question on my first read through the book, but I wanted to come back to it. I’ve been thinking about how high net worth can limit time, lifestyle, and relationships. This is especially true for expensive possessions which require management and maintenance (houses, cars, boats), but money itself requires management, and a whole lot of money requires a complex network of people and institutions to manage taxes, investments, trusts, insurance, and other aspects of wealth legality and retention.

Net worth can also influence social relationships. It’s harder to form and maintain relationships with people who are in completely different economic territory, especially at the extremes of poverty and wealth.

Possessions, including money, can be a pain in the ass.

Of course money also enhances freedom (to an extent), and being poor is more of a pain in the ass than being rich. Kia and I have an emergency fund to handle problems like leaky skylights. Generally, we have enough. But there is powerful social programming, especially in the United States, to feel like no amount of money is enough. I know I’m vulnerable to such programming. I have a vivid imagination, and sometimes that faculty runs wild in the realm of possessions, toys, costly adventures, and fantasy houses. That’s why I wanted to tackle the problem within my own psychology — not because I actually have too much money, but because I want to be free of pointless striving and financial goals that don’t actually improve my quality of life. I’d rather put that energy and focus into creative pursuits, family, and accumulating interesting and memorable experiences.

When I reviewed the question of what financial freedom (and its subset, financial security) mean to me, I came up with the following:

What Does Financial Security Mean For Me?

  1. Co-providing the basics for my family (food, shelter, clothing, education, transportation, etc.)
  2. Living well below my means, having a sizable cash emergency fund (big buffer).
  3. Being on track to save enough money to generate lifetime passive income at age 65+ (not because I expect to want to stop working at that age, but because of possible age discrimination).

What Does Financial Freedom Mean For Me?

  1. Not having to work on anything I don’t want to work on.
  2. Being able to take one big trip and several small trips each year.
  3. Being able to buy the clothes, services, food & drink, hobby materials, etc. that I want.
  4. Being able to buy nice gifts for family and friends.
  5. Contributing generously to the charities and causes I want to support.

The “A-ha!” moments while completing this exercise included the following realizations:

  • I don’t want a bigger house (with more skylights, more stuff, more rooms to keep clean, and a bigger mortgage).
  • I already have tremendous freedom and flexibility from my freelance programming work. Making database applications that are easy to use and help my clients get their jobs done is actually fun most of the time. I like the work and I like feeling useful. I’m not sure I would stop even if 100% my expenses were covered by passive income.
  • Nonstop jet-setting is a dream for some, but I don’t like to travel that much. I do get the travel bug, but not very often.
  • Feeling more financial freedom has much more to do with the decisions I make about managing my time, taking time off, and doing fun things with family and friends than it does with earning more money.

We got the skylights repaired. Upgraded, in fact. James Altucher rails against home ownership for this reason and many others. Well, I like owning our little house. But I can see his point. Why would I want even more home maintenance?

The Traps

Earning more money doesn’t necessarily result in more freedom or higher quality of life. There are traps along the way that steal both. Some of these traps are obvious and have big neon warning signs: THIS WAY LIES MISERY. Others are subtle, hidden, insidious, disguised as conventional wisdom.

I’m not going to make a list of traps, because they’re different for different people and situations. A lot of it comes down to the fine print. Kia once saved us from disastrous re-fi terms by reading the fine print. Buying a house turned out to be a great financial decision for us, but it could have gone a different way depending on timing, loan terms, neighborhood trends, etc.

One trap is overvaluing freedom. Robbins himself talks about this in his book. At one point he is explicitly prioritizing his values, and he realizes that personal freedom isn’t as high on his list as it had been in the past. Freedom is a sacred, vaunted American value. But the flip side of freedom is social isolation. When you have bonds and responsibilities with your family, friends, co-workers, business partners, clients, community, place of work, you’re less free, but you’re also less isolated. You’re engaged in the world. You can’t be engaged in the world and completely free at the same time. Even if you have enough money to not work, live each month of the year in a different city, and avoid being “tied down” in any way whatsoever, doing so won’t necessarily improve your quality of life.

Another trap is false opportunity cost. High earners can have a hard time chilling out and relaxing because they’re thinking about how much money they could be earning, about how valuable their time is.

There’s nothing wrong with valuing your time highly and wanting to maximize productivity. Not everyone wants to chill out and relax. But money is the wrong maximizing metric. So is trying to maximize joy and pleasure — that’s just stressful. Dean Kamen works all the time because he is driven by his desires to make science and engineering more accessible to young people and also to deliver his clean water system to millions of people. Kamen maximizes on meaning and quality of life, not money (being rich is just a side effect).

It’s probably going to rain later today. Hopefully the roof won’t leak. I’m going to spend the rest of the morning revising a short story, and then later work on a new Momu track in the studio.

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8 Comments

  1. love how you’re making me think on a rainy Monday 🙂 !!!

  2. BP

    For me, financial freedom means doing what I want when I want, with my wife’s permission of course. I am a physician who has been working hard for about 20 years. My wife is a stay-at-home mom. We have one son who’s in college.
    We have always lived way below our means. We live in a middle class neighborhood, not “where all the doctors live”. We ended up living here by a stroke of luck, but it has been the one decision which has altered the course of our lives.
    As you probably know, where you live has a lot to do with where you end up financially. Because we were able to save a lot more money which we would have otherwise paid for property taxes, furnishing a big house, driving fancy cars, throwing fancy parties, sending our kid to private school (he was home-schooled with a liberal curriculum & not for religious reasons), and keeping up with the doctors, I am now in a position to cut down my hours to what’s comfortable and have a great lifestyle for my family. I’m currently down to 90% of full-time and plan to taper down 10% a year over the next several years.
    As I get older, emergency medicine becomes more difficult because I have to work rotating shifts (the ED never closes), and need more recovery time after each shift because it is intensely stressful! Definitely a younger man’s game. Thankfully, my financial freedom gives me and my family peace of mind.
    I do agree with you that work does provide a ready-made social structure. I am by nature an introvert. My wife’s the social one, but ironically I worked and she stayed home. Yeah, not great for an ER doc who has to interact with SO many people daily. So, if it weren’t for work, I wouldn’t have a great number of friends.
    I do love to travel and hope to see as much of the world as I can. Got trips planned to the big island of Hawaii (25th wedding anniversary this year), Las Vegas (medical conference next year), and across Europe by train (guys trip with best friend in 2017). To me, travel is a big part of financial freedom.

    Your articles are very good and thought-provoking. I really like your writing style and range of topics, many of which appeal to me as a middle aged man. Loved the stuff on asthma, hair re-growth, investments, diets, etc. Great stuff. Keep up the writing. Wish I had found this site sooner. My wife actually informed me about it.

  3. It’s the charity thing that gets me – the more I earn the more I could give. Whatever I do never feels enough. I find I stop giving money and try to give time. That doesn’t feel enough either. Really important to think of these things – money absolutely does matter, whatever anyone else may say – if we understand in what ways it matters to us, we can make decisions accordingly rather than just latching on to the people’s ideas of ‘having enough’

    • Recently went to an anniversary dinner for Food & Water Watch. Heard stories about outreach during their successful fight to ban fracking in several CA counties. It was the boots-on-the-ground volunteers that made the difference. They went up against the oil and gas industry and won despite being outspent by a huge ratio — they won because they had dedicated people.

  4. A timely read – I’ve been trying to answer this question myself. It turns out there isn’t an exact number, or formula, which, for a guy like me is disconcerting. I do better with measurable goals and well managed risk.

    I’ve picked a date and am reverse-engineering what it will take to stop doing as much of the stuff I don’t like and start doing the stuff I do.

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